WASHINGTON – A Catholic leader who specializes in migration issues highlighted on Wednesday how both foreign governments and the U.S. government benefit from illegal immigrants.
And because there are benefits, J. Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the governments are not urgent about fixing the system despite how broken it may be.
"If it's broken, then don't fix it," he said at a panel discussion on immigration reform Wednesday evening.
"It's a nod-nod, wink-wink system," claimed Appleby, who serves as director of the Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs at USCCB. "Both sending and receiving countries are benefiting at the expense of the human dignity of the immigrant."
The Catholic migration expert was participating in a four-member panel discussion on Capitol Hill that specifically addressed how – from a Christian perspective – immigrants can integrate into society. The event was organized by Christian organizations and think-tanks, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and the Institute for Public Service & Policy Development.
Wednesday's event was the first of three panel discussions on immigration reform.
During his time to speak, Appleby said the United States benefits from a flexible group of workers that it can use when it needs to or "scapegoat" when it does not. Meanwhile, the sending country benefits from the money immigrants send back to their family members still living in their home country.
"This issue is not just about economics, or social issues, or rule of law," Appleby contended.
"Ultimately it is about people. It is about human beings and keeping families together," which faith groups have pointed out, he said.
In general, all four of the panelists emphasized how the Church cannot avoid talking about the illegal immigrant issue because the immigrants are part of the Church now. Appleby said illegal immigrants are a part of the "fabric" of American churches, while Jenny Hwang of World Relief stressed that one of the main reasons why evangelical churches are growing is because immigrants are joining their church bodies.
The Southern Baptist Convention, known for its conservative stance on social issues, even supports comprehensive immigration reform because it recognizes that these immigrants are part of their churches, noted Hwang.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 16 percent of the Hispanic population in the United States is evangelical. The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, who leads the multicultural Lamb's Church in New York City, said that translates to nine to 18 million Hispanic evangelicals, depending on the number used for calculation.
For Hispanic Christian immigrants, the Church is where they look to for help with social services, such as English classes, citizenship information, and where to find trustworthy lawyers, said Salguero on Wednesday. And it is from this experience – providing social services to immigrants – that Hispanic churches can speak about the broken immigration system and advocate for reform, he said.
"We (Christians) take seriously [the commandment to] love your neighbor," said Salguero, who also serves as director of the Institute for Faith and Public Life and the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. "They are not just strangers, they are our neighbors."
"So there is a moral standard by which we are led and to which we speak," he continued. "That moral standard is every single human being, whether they were born in Asia, Latin America or any part of the global South, they should be treated with human dignity. They were created in the imago dei, the image of God."
Increasingly, evangelical churches have joined mainline and Catholic churches in advocating for a comprehensive immigration reform plan that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country. It is estimated 12 million illegal immigrants reside in the United States.
Many Christians who support immigration reform cite Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Leviticus 19:33-34, and Exodus 22:21 – which talk about showing love and compassion to "aliens" – as the biblical basis for their advocacy. They also point out that the current system cannot be tolerated because it breaks up families, as illegal parents are sometimes deported while their U.S.-born children stay in America.
It was based on these principles that the NAE, the nation's largest evangelical body, issued a resolution on immigration last year that called for a boost in work visas and a pathway for illegal immigrants to gain legal status while also calling for strengthening of the national border.
"From the abolitionist movement in the 1800s to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the faith community arises in our generation to address the current polarizing issues of immigration reform," said Pastor Charles Olmeda, who serves as the national immigration coordinator for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, a group that serves about 15 million Hispanic evangelicals and establishes itself as the sister organization of the NAE .
"The faith community urges a prophetic witness of a solution that reconciles the rule of law with a compassion for the suffering," he added Wednesday.
The next panel discussion will be Oct. 13 and focus on immigration in the workforce.